Commencement Address 2017

May 15, 2017

Save a life. Serve a cause. Seek the sublime.

By Amy Gutmann

Chairman Cohen, Trustees and Honored Guests: what a memorable day to applaud our amazing graduates – the Class of 2017!

Graduates: your success, which we celebrate today, is all about the choices you have made to get here.

You are so very good at choosing – as I will now demonstrate.

Penn Vet: Do we have our graduates here today from the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine?

Alright, Penn Vet: I want you to choose by cheering.

Large animals?

Or small animals?

Very good, these are graduates who know their minds!

Now let’s try just Penn undergraduates.

For our undergraduates, this is truly an important choice.

So let’s hear it:

Magic Carpet?

Or Lyn’s?

I think we’ll call that one a tie! Now a choice for all our graduates: Last night, your friend who doesn’t dance…did! And you got the video.

All right, to all the graduates here, do you choose to share it on:


Or Snapchat?

Hmmm, very revealing!

Now, let’s finish with the toughest question, and this one is for all the parents and grandparents.

You have made many hard choices before this one. But now the pressure is on!

Let’s hear it for either:

The Beatles?

Or the Rolling Stones?

Interesting! We may not always get what we want… but clearly we get by with a little help from our friends!

Everybody, let’s hear it for our greatest friends, our parents and grandparents!

Choice can be fun, as you’ve just demonstrated.

But there is a larger meaning in our exercising choice. Our choices define us: The broadest contours of our lives – and of our character – are drawn by the choices we make.

Choice is freedom, and freedom is choice.

By that measure, Penn graduates today have enormous freedom, more so than almost anyone who’s gone before. Yet the challenge of living the most meaningful life possible remains: what do we choose?

The answer lies not in what you have with your freedom, but in what you do with it.

How will you use the amazing freedom of choice that is yours?

I am the child of a refugee. We lost my father fifty years ago this year. Perhaps that is why I've been thinking even more than usual of him, and of my mother, and what their lives taught me about making the most of our choices. Their freedom of choice was radically constrained compared to yours and mine.

Nonetheless, they chose to live inspiring and satisfying lives by making incredibly meaningful use of the freedom they had.

Those whose lives are most inspiring, and satisfying, find the means to answering the essential question, “What will you use your freedom of choice to do?”

They find the path.

They save a life. They serve a cause. They seek the sublime.

Save a life.

Our Commencement speaker came home one night to find his neighbor’s house lit against the night sky in flames, his neighbor screaming for her daughter still inside. At once, he ducked into the flames.

He was through the kitchen and to the top of the stairs when he felt something. A sharp tug on his belt. It was a police detective behind him, shouting, “Get out!”

The moment of choice had come. Cory Booker made a snap decision – a fateful choice – and he saved a life. By saving a life, Cory Booker made another person’s world possible.

When my father made the fateful choice to flee his home, he faced a decision shared by refugees everywhere: Save just oneself or try to save others?

In places such as Syria or in the path of Boko Haram, we see it. In the inferno of war and genocide, the choice is so often excruciating.

His siblings, his parents, and others – my father helped not just himself, but all of them escape. His choice made the worlds of many possible. His choice made my world possible.

Nothing so dramatic as a war or a burning house is required to save a life and, through it, a world. We can all do it. The path to save a life starts in the day-to-day.

We choose to save a vulnerable life when we support a loved one or mentor a child; when we intervene to help someone in harm’s way; when we share our resources; when we devote our energies to finding common cause to help others.

Above saving a life, there can be no greater good on earth.

Serve a cause.

We would not be here today but for the selfless commitment of those who serve the high cause of safeguarding our lives and liberty. For serving that cause, which protects countless lives, we are profoundly grateful to the men and women who have chosen to serve in our nation’s military. Let’s hear it for them.

Essential to our freedom is opportunity. Too many in our world are without it. We know high-quality education is one of the most powerful ways to attain it. Your Class bears special witness to this fact.

Many of you join me in being the very first in your families to graduate, with all the opportunities that a Penn education today makes possible. Let’s hear it for our first-generation students!

My own mother never had the opportunity to go to college. Yet, all her life, she felt the calling to educate. In college, I found out how to make her passion my own.

I was a work-study student and a substitute teacher. I worked at a local public high school serving first generation, low-income students, not unlike myself. In my head and by my college major, I was to be a mathematician.

But in that classroom and in my heart, I reimagined my mother’s cause. Commitment to providing exceptional educational opportunity for everyone has guided my choices ever since.

Worthy causes are all around. We make the most of our lives when we passionately serve a calling, taking it to heart: to heal, to invent, to teach, to protect, to defend.

There’s service to one’s family and friends, to one’s country, to humankind and to all beings large and small. There’s great urgency in advancing knowledge for all.

When we serve a great cause, when we have a calling, we grow great ourselves.

And then there's also another path:

To seek the sublime.

For many years, my father lived as an exile in India, in Bombay, now Mumbai.

He found himself a stranger in a strange, but beautiful land. He had to learn a new language. He had to find a way to earn a living.

Even so, he made time to seek something higher. It was more than a full day’s journey north from his adopted city to the foothills of the Himalayas.

With a camera slung around his neck, he traversed that long road just to climb and behold the mountains. I grew up with his photo albums, pages of deep dramatic valleys and towering peaks.

He collected Indian art. He cultivated his love of Mozart and Beethoven. He loved as well Indian music – maybe that’s why my spirits soar hearing the music of Penn Masala!

So bright did these things shine, that my memories of my father are suffused with his search for the sublime.

Those moments of mountain peaks, of musical and literary magic, of working together as a team, of creating art, of humor reducing an audience to tears of laughter: they defy measurement. They baffle description. But when you experience the sublime, you know it. Your spirit soars.

Save a life, serve a cause, seek the sublime.

Memories of my parents remind me every day of the power each of us has in choosing the lives we make for ourselves. To the utmost of what they did have, they championed freedom well-used.

Freedom well-used: That’s the end to which your Penn education is the means. You are incomparably well-equipped to put your boundless opportunity – your limitless freedom – to the best possible use.

From watching you grow and succeed here, we know that you’re already off to a grand start. All of today is not nearly enough time to list the inspiring things you have chosen to do at Penn.

But in just two minutes, I can show you! Watch this.

The composer of the soundtrack and drummer is Wharton senior Tai Bendit-Shtull. Tai, are you here? Let’s give him a hand!

Graduates, use your freedom well, for you will be defined by the choices you make.

And know that your joy today is amplified a thousand-fold by the pride that all of us feel in your achievements. Rather than just tell you, we will show you.

Families and friends, faculty and colleagues, Trustees and honorees: please stand with me now and show these graduates just how proud we are!